Helicopter parents – helping or taking over?

by Sharon Jayson

The line between being a caring and involved parent and a hovering “helicopter” parent is getting even murkier. New research says helicopter parenting isn’t just part of the parenting vernacular, it’s a distinct form of parenting that can have positive effects for adult children, but some negatives as well.

So what’s a parent to do? Are parents too pushy or their adult children just too needy? Research suggests that the big difference is between helping young adults and taking over their decisions.

For ages 18 to 29 – who are largely post-high school – research online now and slated for the October issue of the Journal of Adolescence finds “helicopter parenting appears to be inappropriately intrusive and managing, but done out of strong parental concern for the well-being and success of the child.” Researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, say the “high involvement, low autonomy granting and presence of emotional support in the relationship” reflects “a uniquely distinguishable approach to parenting.”

“They’re involved in their children’s lives – just not appropriately,” says lead author Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor of human development. “They don’t value having their children make their own decisions.”

The study was based on data collected from 438 undergraduates at four universities around the country and at least one of their parents (376 mothers and 303 fathers). It found that students whose parents were closer to the helicoptering type were less engaged in school.

“They may already be less engaged in school, so the parent is stepping in to try to help or it could be parents have hovered so long that the child is not taking their own initiative,” Padilla-Walker says. “I don’t want parents to get the message not to be involved in their children’s lives at this age. They are very much needed. The key is, is it joint decision-making or is it the parent doing it?”

A broader study of 592 adults, mostly ages 18 to 33, and their 399 parents (many had more than one child participating) found much more positive effects of what the researchers termed “intense support.” The study, published in August in the Journal of Marriage and Family, shows the adult kids reported better psychological adjustment than those who didn’t have intense support – financial, advice and emotional.

Unlike most studies about this topic that focus on current college students or the college-educated, two-thirds of the adult kids were from a non-college population, reflecting that helicopter parents aren’t just among the well-educated.

The only negative these researchers found was among parents who perceived their adult kids needed too much support – the parents had poorer life satisfaction.

© 2012 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

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